David Matheson,
Red Thunder
(Media Weavers, 2002)

David Matheson combines oral history and traditional storytelling in his novel Red Thunder, a fictional cultural history of the Schi'tsu'umsh, commonly known as the Coeur d'Alene. His narrative is based largely on the oral histories about Circling Raven, a "spirit chief."

The novel, set in what would be part of Idaho, Washington and Montana, takes place in the early 1700s, before the European incursion, and covers much of the life span of the narrator, Sun Bear, from boy to man. Sun Bear describes the events that fill his days, from gathering huckleberries to a chance encounter with a grizzly bear, to the rituals and ceremonies that shape his life. As he grows up, the preparations made in his childhood show their influence in his conduct.

Although somewhat episodic, there is a plot thread running through the book, set up when Sun Bear's baby sister, Rainbow Girl, when no more than a toddler, rescues their older sister from "the enemy" by seeming to summon the "red thunder," a phenomenon interpreted as a sacred sign. Later, when Rainbow Girl's own child is stolen, the red thunder comes to her aid as well as Sun Bear and the others who accompany the rescue party. Rainbow Girl suffers more than any other character, and while Sun Bear is the narrator, he shares the role of protagonist with his sister.

Woven into the narrative are the legends and stories of the Sch'tsu'umsh, with frequent explanation of why things are done one way or another. At times, these explanations border on the didactic and repetitive, but if the reader imagines a voice narrating the words, then they become less pedantic sounding as the rhythm takes over and transforms the shape and flow of the narrative. While there are occasional grammatical lapses, overall, the story is compelling and the characters are appealing.

Matheson also supplies maps and a book discussion guide which enhances the story nicely. The end result is a book that vividly depicts a time, place and people very different from the average 21st-century reader while deftly pointing out our common ground.

- Rambles
written by Donna Scanlon
published 2 August 2003

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